Becoming a gardener coach

The pandemic has caused coaches to reevaluate how they think about training. We’ve heard story after story about how the pandemic helped athletes reach new levels of performance. But what about the coaches? For many coaches, the pandemic has had the same effect.

Author George R.R. Martin has a useful way of categorizing writers that I think is equally applicable to coaches:

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it.”

The world is full of architect coaches. This is the coaching model taught to us in school and in our own experiences. But being an architect coach is becoming less and less viable as an option. The pandemic has forced many architect coaches, myself included, take a step back and become gardeners.

» Related content: Martin Bingisser’s video presentation looks at athlete case studies to find lessons we can learn from training during the pandemic.

How my coaching evolved since the pandemic

This year has forced me to slow down and let go. We couldn’t come within six feet of each other in practice, which makes a sport like wrestling quite challenging to coach. No pushing. No pulling. No fighting. No competition. No pressure.

There were negative aspects of this, but also many positives. The wrestlers were free from my expectations and plans. I was more relaxed and had no reason to push. They were there because they wanted to be there, not because I was in their ear. Their goals kept them working, not mine. The wrestlers trained hard without me looking over their shoulder. 

In past seasons I labored over every detail of training. I was the architect. At the beginning of the season, I mapped out the technique, strength training, and competition schedule in detail. I kept notes on each wrestler’s goals and my goals for them. I pressured and cajoled the athletes to work harder to be their best. I got results, but it was exhausting. I was exhausted at the end of each season, and it never felt right to me. In spite of that, I didn’t back off. I didn’t want to let my wrestlers down.

I studied culture, performance, endurance, and anything I thought could help me become a better coach. I put thought and effort into our team culture. I believed that it was the coach’s job to build his team from well-studied and detailed long-term plans. I thought like an architect with a beautifully detailed set of blueprints. I was prepared to show my team the way; all they had to do was follow the plan. If I had a wrestler whom I thought could be a state champion or All-American; I told him or her what I thought and laid out a plan for them. After this past year, I question that approach. Perhaps there is a better way than being the architect.

Learning to push less

Recently, I found the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. In the 1980s they developed a theory of motivation, self-determination theory, built on the idea that people have a core need for growth. They do not need to be pushed; in fact, it can be counterproductive. Their studies found that people offered an external reward like money did less well at a task and quit sooner than those left alone. The theory stipulates that motivation and growth are based on the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. 

The theory differentiates two types of motivation: controlling and autonomous. Control motivation is the more traditional carrot-and-stick approach. The coach pressures, coerces, and encourages the athletes, but research shows that these athletes tend to take shortcuts to get the reward. Autonomous motivation is characterized by volition, willingness, and choice. People with autonomous motivation tend to be more creative and show more perseverance to reach a difficult goal. 

My wrestlers still have to trust that I can help them reach their goals. I know that communication and relationships are keys to my being a successful coach. As the old saying goes, it is not about Xs and Os, it’s about Jills and Joes. I have to understand my wrestlers, but high-fives and fiery talks will not create authentic relationships and build trust. The challenge is to trust that they don’t need me to motivate them. The motivation is already there. I just need to create the environment, give them the tools, and not get in their way. I will have to keep reminding myself that these are their goals not mine.

This year without the pressure of competition, I was willing to let the athletes find their own ways. I had more time to talk to my wrestlers and felt more relaxed doing it. Wrestlers were setting personal bests in the weight room on their own. I was no longer trying to get something out of them or change them; I was trying to understand and support them.

Edward Deci points out that “people who focus on rewards miss out on the inner resources of intrinsic motivation and volition that are wellsprings of true engagement and creativity.”  As a coach I had been trying to control my wrestlers’ motivations instead of letting them develop their own autonomous motivations that naturally flowed out of them.

There is joy and pleasure in being internally motivated. A joy in the drive to get better for its own sake. As an athlete, I was driven to wrestle and improve because I loved it. When athletes are working for their own needs and goals and not to please a coach, then there is space for the athletes to grow. As a coach I have high goals and expectations. I enjoyed winning as a wrestler, and I want to win as a coach. I want to be successful, and I have my own measure of what that looks like. The challenge for me is to not blindly force my expectations and needs onto my athletes.       

Becoming a gardener

This COVID season has forced me to reevaluate my role as a coach. I want to be more like a gardener than an architect and create an environment for my athletes to grow from seeds and to flourish by their own plans. Gardeners know what works for each plant, and they know they can’t force things. Growth happens in its own time and its own unique way. I want to use my experience, knowledge, and my own drive for growth to help my wrestlers find their own path and their own success. The challenge for me will be to trust my wrestlers, let go of my fear, and let nature take its course.